Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction

By Panek, LeRoy L. | Shofar, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction


Panek, LeRoy L., Shofar


Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction, by Malcolm J. Turnbull. Bowling Green, OH: The Popular Press, 1999. 200 pp. $22.00.

At the turn of the twentieth century literature changed. Hitherto chiefly the province of the upper-middle class, the introduction of universal education along with the invention of the rotary press, linotype, half-tone engraving, advertising, incandescent illumination, and the vacation combined to make reading a form of "popular" entertainment for the first time. Beginning with Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891), the detective story became the most prominent form of popular fiction in England. Conventionally viewed, the history of the detective story proceeds from Doyle, through a number of turn-of-thecentury imitators, to its Golden Age: the period between the wars when all of the big names - Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Cox, Allingham, et al. - began to write. And Malcolm Turnbull has read them all. He has read them, moreover, with an eye toward the ways in which detective stories from about the turn of the century through about the end of World War II treat Jewish characters.

They mostly treat them badly. Scarcely a surprise. Turnbull chronologically pursues the ways in the English detective writers use and describe Jewish characters. His chapters cover the periods of 1887 to 1918, 1919 to 1939, 1939 to 1945, and 1945 to the present. In the middle of the book he also takes a look at the ways in which three influential writers - Christie, Sayers, and Cox - treat Jews. In this survey Turnbull follows the rise and fall of stereotypes imposed on Jewish characters. These begin with the image of "influential wealthholder" and "cunning immigrant pauper" inherited from older English fiction and proceed after World War I to the Jew as parvenu, as revolutionary, and as war-profiteer. Throughout each of the periods persists the stereotype of the Jew as alien, as someone whose appearance (swarthy complexion, hooked nose, thick lips, dark hair), dress (rags or exhibitionistic clothes), speech (lisping), morals (sexually aggressive), and mannerisms differ from those of the other characters in the world of the fiction. Turnbull touches on events which coincide with the creation and adoption of antisemitic images from the Dreyfus case, to the emigration of Russian Jews in the 1 890s, to the publication of The Protocols of the Elders ofZion, to the role of two Jewish M.P.s in the Marconi and Indian Silver Scandals, as well as the association of several Jewish activists with the causes of communism and the Russian Revolution.

Turnbull, however, shows both that in each period some detective story writers express philosemitic attitudes and that after 1933 antisemitism largely disappears from British detective fiction. In 1 899, for instance, while E. M. Hornung presented Reuben Rosenthall in The Amateur Cracksman as

the most astonishing brute to look at, well over six feet, with a chest like a barrel and a great hook-nose, and the reddest hair and whiskers you ever saw. ... He boasted of his race, he bragged of his riches, and he blackguarded society for taking him up for his money and dropping him out of sheer pique and jealousy because he had so much[,]

his brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle, can and should be seen as philosemitic in his writing and private life. While Doyle was ready enough to express religious prejudice (consider Mormons in A Study in Scarlet), and generally creates villains who are either foreign or have been tainted by otiier cultures, Turnbull finds no evidence in the Holmes canon of prejudice against Jews and mentions Doyle's campaign to free the wrongly accused Oscar Slater in 1927. …

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